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Archive for April, 2017

My interest in scholarly philosophical and theological thought began in my youth. Much of it was driven by the concerns of the older generation who saw my generation’s waning faith as symptomatic of the subversive influence of our “antigod” culture.  The passion one develops in middle school and high school quickly fades when our professors present us with a rational alternative to the Christian story.

Apologetics became an essential part of my education. I love completeness and tidiness. I thought that with deep thought and good research I could answer almost any question opposed to my faith. My high school science textbooks diverged from time to time to address Creation vs. Evolution questions. I remember attempting to read Josh McDowell’s New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, which was at the time, an authoritative encyclopedia of apologetic evidence for Christianity. I attended conferences, debates, and lectures, and discussed them with my friends. I could listen to Stand to Reason podcasts for hours. Every activity I devoted to studying apologetics honed my thinking about Christianity, Scripture, and the world.

After many years and hours of listening, reading, and discussing, I finally had my fill of apologetic thought – the same questions, the same answers, hashed and rehashed. I was satisfied with the answers, and my interest shifted directed toward theology and biblical studies. After I graduated NC State, I took a half year before enrolling in Seminary. With the same appetite for knowledge and the same love for completeness I pursued academic learning.

I had a new questions to investigate. I had trained my mind through apologetics to seek answers, and theology and biblical studies asked plenty of difficult, interesting questions. At the end of my six years, I had satisfactory answers to many of the questions I initially asked. I also had way more questions to ask. When I started, young and naive, I thought I could discover answers to some of the nagging questions of the Faith – questions like continuity/discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, Christian use of the Law, and the key to a proper Christian reading of the Old Testament, and other issues that only seem to interest scholars. At the end, less young and more naive, I could only answer those questions by discussing possibilities or providing an answer with a long list of qualifications. Apparently simple questions defied simple answers and required devotion to research with little guarantees that the research could provide tidy or complete answers.

Was I wrong to invest so much time an interest in study into something that provided very little in terms of satisfactory answers? If what I have left after so much study are questions that hold little to no interest to the lay public, what was the value of all those hours? Are my only options to seek information for its own sake? Shall I with Ecclesiastes say: “Vanity! Vanity!” and give up? What value did my academic pursuit add to my life and my faith ultimately?

These are the new questions I ask myself. I admit that I slipped into a mild depression as I sought an answer. These are soul-searching questions. I can only provide some reflections, but these reflections have comforted me lately and re-energized my pursuit of knowledge.

There is a conflict between the local church and the seminary.  We have opposing critiques about what’s significant, and we aim our critiques like canons at each other. One side rebukes the other for their lack of pragmatism and the other for their lack of theological interest. On the one side, we run into the danger of capitulating to cultural pragmatism and thus limiting our interest in Scripture to “how to’s” and instruction manuals. The other side risks a kind of positivism that fails to realize our limitations as human beings and diminishes the vastness of its research subject, i.e. God and Scripture.

How humorous would some passages of Scripture be if the author had substituted “Amen” for how we might actually be reading it? We could consider the many times Jesus spoke, “Amen, amen, I say to you…” as if Jesus were saying, “I have some advice for you. I think this could really help you out.” Or if Paul had said instead of “Amen” in Romans 11: “Oh the depth of the riches…Q.E.D.” as if he were summing up his proof of justification and election instead of concluding in benediction.

When we come to some understanding of God, for instance that God is Trinity, it doesn’t really dispel the mystery. If anything, it embellishes that mystery and we come to the limits of our understanding  (is there anything in the world like the Trinity?). If our concern in reading Scripture is limited to what we are supposed to do, what do we with the parts that are not as immediately pragmatic? In either case, we’re not really affected by the great truth Scripture reveals to us. Only if we end up at praise and benediction, we can arrive at an appropriate response: “This is how God really is. Amazing!”

Scripture often redirects our questions and provides us unexpected answers. Consider Job. He loses his children, his wealth, and his health and for many long chapters he is advised, questioned, and accused by his friends. Job seeks out an answer for his unjust suffering, and we wants God to give that answer. At the end of the narrative, God appears to Job and says basically, “I’ll answer your questions, if you can tell me answers to mine.” God asks Job many unanswerable questions. In effect saying, “if you can’t understand these simple questions, how can you understand why you’re suffering?” Job acknowledges his limitations and receives comfort from it.

Job receives an answer that doesn’t answer the original question. When God reveals himself, he realizes how small his world is and how vast God’s knowledge is. Job, wise as he is, does not have the capability to understand  everything that happens in the world. As readers, we know God makes a bet with the accuser that begins Job’s suffering. We may understand the cause Job’s suffering, but we don’t understand why God would allow or even be in some ways responsible for Job’s suffering. Scripture gives us glimpses of God’s decisions, but we cannot hope to understand the depth of God’s wisdom. He’s out of our league, and our tiny minds could not comprehend all the reasons behind God’s actions.

Personally, I tend toward positivism: Humanity can overcome its limitations through rationalism and science. Positivism has no patience for mystery for the only thing that is not limited in this world is the human capacity to discover and know. I considered all these theological and biblical questions answerable with more reading and knowledge. Our minds, however, were created by God, and our ability to understand and to fashion tools for discovery are gifts from the Creator.

If Job teaches me anything he shows me that I am indeed limited. Some types of knowledge exist in this world which the human mind cannot grasp. Moreover, the most important kind of knowledge is beyond the reach of our best tools to discover it. We learn this kind of knowledge through revelation, and our discovery of that revealed knowledge is subject to a will greater than ours. God decides where and how and what to reveal, and he opens our minds to understand it.

We, limited as we are, still discover great things. We learn, think, and understand, and we wonder, which seems to me to be the most appropriate response when we come to any kind of understanding of God, this world, or his Word. By doing so we avoid the temptation to think that by understanding we own the subject matter we have come to know. We avoid the mistake of pride which itself kills any true pursuit of knowledge. Pride limits the world and the questions we ask as if there are only a few gaps in our knowledge.

True knowledge directs us to worship. In knowing God we know that we are limited. When we come to know our limitations, we recognize the vastness of the knowledge of God. The only proper response is benediction – the pronouncement of “Amen.” With each discovery, our Amen’s ought to become louder and more frequent. For in doing so, we recognize knowledge as a gift, that our tiny minds have the ability to grasp something vast whether in science or Bible or theology causes us to wonder, and that One who willed us to know, revealed himself as an act of kindness toward we who are feeble-minded. This is a great mystery and a great mercy. Amen.

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